Tuesday, 29 April 2008

OK, "it's the economy, stupid". But what's the story?

Happy days were here again.  Now the global economy is heading south.  For the first time in years, politics is about money, or lack of it.   But the way that politicians and voters are responding has  raised some interesting  questions.

Take the US elections.  The credit crunch started over there and is biting.  So it’s very odd that the economy has not been a big factor in the primary campaign. 

Here’s an even bigger mystery.  On the Democratic side, Barack Obama is in the lead, largely because he is telling a compelling, personal story based on hope and a promise of change. He is often criticised, however, for having too few specific policies. 

On the economy, it’s a different matter. Look what John Hellemann of New York magazine has to say about Obama’s campaign:

"Now, the knock on Obama for months has been that he’s guilty of a maddening policy vagueness. That whereas Clinton has trafficked in specificity and substance, he’s stuck to vaporous theme and inspiration. But Obama’s recent economic shtick has been anything but nebulous. In fact, it has been nearly as laundry-listy as Hillary’s patented spiel. The proposals pile up, the numbers tumble out—$60 billion for infrastructure, $80 billion for middle-class tax cuts, $150 billion for green technologies—and the mind begins to reel.

“Something is better than nothing, to be sure, and many of Obama’s plans strike me as perfectly sensible. What’s missing, however, is an overriding theory of the case—a powerful narrative that both frames and makes sense of the changes whipping through the economy like a Bengali typhoon. Obama may not need such a narrative to win the Democratic nomination. But without one, he’ll find himself fighting in the fall without the gnarliest club at his disposal for the bludgeoning of John McCain—and for beating back Republican charges that, just below the surface, he’s a reflexive, old-school liberal."

Senator Obama has often fallen back on protectionist political rhetoric. Hellemann says that he should drop that and instead use an updated version of the economic narrative that worked for Bill Clinton in 1992. 

“What everyone remembers about Bill Clinton’s race in 1992, of course, is that he focused on the economy “like a laser beam,” as he put it. They remember “It’s the economy, stupid.” What they often forget is how cohesive, compelling, and even daring was the story he told about the source of the insecurity so many voters were feeling: the story of an economy in the throes of a profound, irreversible structural transformation, driven by technology and globalization. Clinton made no bones about the pain all this would cause. He didn’t hesitate to inform workers in old-line industries that many of the jobs that had disappeared were never coming back. But Clinton also laid out an ambitious agenda to upgrade the nation’s store of human capital, enabling anyone willing to make the effort to “make change their friend.”

“. . . Though it’s easy (and fun!) to bash Beijing and Gucci Gulch, they pale in importance beside other forces—information technology primary among them—in affecting the prosperity of working- and middle-class voters.

“For Obama, the challenge, which Clinton met so effectively in 1992, is to fashion a narrative that acknowledges and even embraces those forces and then describes how they can be channeled.”

As a liberal and a romantic (in thinking that politics should be informed by ideas and at least some intellectual honesty), I’ll buy that. But let’s not forget that in 1992 Bill Clinton had a populist story too. The core of it was: “I’m tired of seeing the people who work hard and play by the rules get the shaft.”

Back to this side of the pond. Tom McNally argues in Liberal Democrat News this week that the party should move the economy centre stage. He calls for a political appeal rooted in our commitment to fair taxes and genuine social mobility. 

This is, of course, what Vince Cable is saying, along with a lot more on fiscal and monetary policy, which has given the Lib Dems a new credibility on economic policy. I would add two caveats.  First, a platform of “making change our friend”, is no less valid than it was in the mid-1990s, when both Labour and the Liberal Democrats adapted Bill Clinton’s themes into pledges of greater investment in education. 

Second, whilst it is the basis of a sound, liberal policy platform, what Vince Cable and Tom McNally are putting forward is not a political story, with good and bad characters, a narrative flow and, crucially, a central myth and morality. To help project that, we need a new, fit-for-Britain version of Bill Clinton’s “feel your pain” rhetoric.

One such story is starting to be told but the wrong politician is telling it. Speaking at the weekend about the abolition of the 10p tax rate, David Cameron said.

"[Traditional Labour supporters] have been let down by Labour and those are the people I want to stand up for."

"People on low pay, families who struggle often to make ends meet, who have seen the cost of living rising and have seen their tax bill go up under Labour, those people who thought 'The Labour Party is for me'. I think they feel desperately let down.

"What I want to say to people like that is we are there for you."

Yes, it’s hypocritical, cynical and opportunistic.  For all that, there is an uncomfortable truth: Labour’s perfect political storm is helping the Tories to find their narratives.  Slowly, but surely.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Framewatch: George W. Bush and climate change

With last week’s big speech on climate change, President Bush stuck to his gambit of trying to put off adopting meaningful targets or pursuing effective strategies until another day. Maybe that should be, until another administration.

It was also a handy case study of how the political right and the sceptics try to frame climate change. Framing, you will recall, is about giving people a way to think about politics, through a model or structure or question so that they see the political choices in your terms.

President Bush’s way of framing climate change can be traced back to a 2002 memo from the pollster Frank Luntz called "The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America”. Mr Luntz warned that the Republicans were “getting killed” on green issues. He showed President Bush and his allies how to block action and sidetrack debate on climate policies:

"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science...Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate . . . "

Luntz suggested that President Bush should abandon the phrase "global warming" in favour of "climate change” on the basis that it is “less frightening”. “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge,” the memo said. The president seems to have followed the advice.

Luntz also advised the president to use phrases such as "common sense” and to avoid pro-business arguments wherever possible.

In 2006, Frank Luntz recanted, saying that he now accepted the scientific consensus on global warming and had changed his position. Luntz was clear that he didn’t feel responsible for what the US government was doing with his advice.

President Bush’s speech from last week has now been deconstructed by Andrew Revkin and bloggers on Dot Earth. They highlight the contradictions between the president’s rhetoric and his record.

As for framing, President Bush keeps calling climate change an “issue” rather than a “problem” or a “challenge”. He frequently uses words like “rational”, “balanced” and “strong” to describe his policies.

I noted how Bush’s frame sets up a false choice around possible solutions to climate change. The main one is higher energy bills and reduced prosperity versus investing in low emission technologies.

Surely, no one supports policies that would cause big jumps in power prices, especially not now. Climate change should not be a Trojan horse for protectionist policies. But Bush’s frame collapses under the weight of the Stern Report, which showed that the economic costs of inaction exceed the costs of action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. There are many cost-effective energy technologies that can currently be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, many pre-commercial technologies can be brought to the marketplace in the near future (with the right policies) to further reduce emissions cost effectively.

The key is carbon pricing. But the Bush administration still won’t back a cap and trade system, the only carbon pricing on offer in the US right now. There’s no proof that great economic damage would result from bringing in cap and trade. The IMF has suggested that the right mix of carbon cutting policies would not necessarily harm the world economy.

Likewise, energy efficiency doesn’t fit into Bush’s frame. Yet the McKinsey Global Institute showed in 2006 how the growth rate of worldwide energy consumption could be cut by more than half over the next 15 years through more aggressive energy-efficiency efforts by households and industry. The energy savings, the report said, can be achieved with current technology and would deliver savings for consumers and companies. The potential savings have been estimated at billions of dollars.

Last year, a McKinsey report studied 250 carbon abatement options and found that a mix of tested approaches and emerging technologies could deliver significant carbon savings at low cost; the costs would be lower an the savings higher if there were big gains from energy efficiency. Nearly half of the options studied could be delivered at “negative cost” and most of those delivered increased energy efficiency in households and buildings. The report also stressed the need for fast, sustained, economy-wide action.

In short, the right soutions for climate change can also help to grow the economy. (Check out the green feature in Time magazine this week)

Now, what was that about “rational” policies and “balanced” solutions?

I think it’s time to reclaim the frame.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Learning from Barack Obama's original sin

Here’s another reason why the US Democratic presidential primaries are so closely fought and why just a few points separate either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton from John McCain.

OK, it’s all about narratives, the candidates telling their stories. It’s more than that – the contest is about how America wants to see itself.

Roger Cohen of The New York Times says that the US may now be ready to confront one of the darkest chapters in its history, its central conflict; what Barack Obama has called America’s “original sin” – slavery and segregation.

In so doing, Cohen reinforces an invaluable insight into what makes a political narrative work.

“It’s striking how the three contenders for the presidency offer different self-images for America. John McCain comforts the classic heroic narrative. Hillary Clinton breaks the male hold on that narrative and so transforms it. Obama transfigures it in another way by personifying America’s victory over its most visceral blemish.”

In Leading Minds (1995), Howard Gardner showed how great leaders’ stories have addressed “issues of personal and group identity” for their audiences. He showed how providing audiences with a way of reframing their thoughts and plans for the future, “where they have been and where they would like to go”, is fundamental to the effectiveness of any leader’s story.

Recent political history offers some good examples. During World War II, Winston Churchill told the British people how and why they would prevail against Nazi Germany. Margaret Thatcher told a story of reversing national economic decline and “making Britain great again”. Tony Blair talked in 1997 about a national renewal, a “new Britain”.

Gordon Brown delivers sermons about “Britishness” but he does not tell stories that connect people with his ideas and, most importantly, a vision for the future. David Cameron avoids stories about identity, doubtless recognising that his party may want to live in little England but the voters do not. Nick Clegg has started to tell the story of a “better Britain”, in which government leads the way in enhancing individual opportunities. That’s a welcome move. The next step is to play that into the stories that Liberal Democrat inclined voters believe already about their country. We need to understand what Roger Cohen calls their self-image of the nation.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

No metamorphosis here

I have discovered a new me!

I am, apparently, some kind of conspirator against the leader of the Liberal Democrats!

Most people who know me will be highly amused to hear this. But some guy from Somerset has become somewhat exercised about yesterday’s carefully worded posting.

I have tried to post a reply but it has not appeared on his blog. As important issues of principle are involved and some of his language is unfortunate (to put it mildly), here is my response:

Calm down Bob and consider a third option – that it’s a sincere attempt to provide some informed analysis of how the public sees the Lib Dems. We still have too little discussion of polls, what they mean and what we can (all) do better. The main message, which surely no-one disputes, is that Nick’s profile needs to be higher – but then he is still quite new in post! And we have all have a part to play in helping to lift his profile.

My blogs and the comments I have made on others’ are pretty supportive of Nick Clegg and what he is doing. For what it is worth, I have defended Nick and his /the party’s poll ratings. My blogs also make many suggestions as to how we can better promote our policies, some of which I have helped to develop.

Have a look.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Nick Clegg - Lib Dem asset or liability?

The answer is that it’s still too early to tell – even if one or two bits of polling data don't look good.

As I have argued previously, we need to look at the trends, probably over six months.

For the first three months of 2008, the trends were pretty good. The Lib Dems scored between 16 and 21 per cent in the public opinion polls. This compared to an average of 16 per cent across all the national polls for all of last year.

But the April Populus and ICM polls both showed slight dips in Lib Dem support. In yesterday’s Sunday Times You Gov poll, the party was on 17 per cent (no change). These moves followed a renewed Conservative momentum, more atrocious news for the government and, yes, the GQ interview (though its precise impact cannot be measured). Taken on their own, all of these shifts were within the margins for error but when added up, they suggest that the party’s recent progress may have stalled.

There are two ways of judging Nick Clegg’s personal popularity and the extent to which he is driving the party’s poll fortunes: what voters think of him and whether they have a view at all.

The Populus leader index measures Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg on a 10-point “how good a leader”, scale. In January, Nick Clegg had an initial score with Populus of 4.40. In March, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty vote, it was 4.16, the lowest rating they have found for a Lib Dem leader. In April, Nick Clegg scored 4.27, slightly above Ming Campbell’s worst showing.

These figures have to be placed in context: Nick Clegg is still getting established with the public. In January, nearly 40 per cent of voters didn’t know what they thought of him. In April, this figure had fallen to 25 per cent. None of these figures are at all surprising for a new leader. In April, just 3 per cent had no view of Gordon Brown and 6 per cent had no view of David Cameron. The message is clear: Nick Clegg’s main task is to keep building his public profile and to define himself.

The figures from YouGov tell a similar story. You Gov asks voters whether they think each leader is doing very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly. In March, Nick Clegg had a net satisfaction rating of minus 6 per cent. This month, the figure was minus 9 per cent. In both surveys, however, YouGov found that 38 per cent had no opinion about how Nick Clegg was performing.

There’s an obvious catch. When more people make up their minds about him, it needs to be a positive perception. Writing last week about Gordon Brown’s free-falling ratings, The Times’ Peter Riddell observed that:

“Once the public has made up its mind about a leader, it is very hard to shift opinions for the better. Just ask William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Sir Menzies Campbell.”

That’s correct and the media will also make up its mind. Their attention is currently focused on the government’s difficulties. But by conference time, the commentators will be ready to start defining Nick Clegg’s leadership, one way or the other.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Hey 1968, it’s time for a break

Well, that year is back.

You know the one – 1968. We have a new round of newspaper articles rehearsing all the old arguments. The slogans and the demonstrations were youthful posturing and an embarrassment, says Tom Stoppard. No, we really made a difference, replies Magnus Linklater. Every day, BBC Radio 4 tells us what was happening exactly forty years ago. The BFI has a mini season of films about May ’68.

I have read and watched a lot about 1968 over the years. (I “wasn’t there”, to coin a phrase, being six years old at the time and living in New Zealand). I appreciate that a lot happened: the Tet offensive, the student and other upheavals in Paris, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Soviet tanks rolling over the Prague Spring, the Democrats’ disastrous Chicago convention and Nixon’s election, to name a few.

But I can’t get too excited about this anniversary. First, there were many important events but other years had a big long-term impact, arguably more momentous than that of 1968. 1973 saw the first oil shock and marked the ending of the “west’s” economic dominance. 1979 brought the Iranian revolution and showed the emerging political power of Islam. Margaret Thatcher’s election signalled the end of the Keynesian consensus on economic policy. In 1989, the Berlin Wall went down. In 2001 . . . you get the picture.

As for all the argument about the evenements, I find the combination of the British media's fixation with the past and some baby boomers’ narcissistic efforts to celebrate themselves a little hard to take.

Most importantly, much of the legacy of the 1968 demonstrations has not been very happy for liberals, especially the “social liberal” baby boomers who came of age at that time. E.J. Dionne jr. argues that King’s murder and the ensuing riots that engulfed Washington DC and major American cities signalled the collapse of liberal hopes and the beginning of a conservative dominance of U.S. politics. Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary (and a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton in 1968) has made very similar observations.

And “the system” – western capitalism – didn’t just survive. Over the past twenty five years or more, the market has been untamed, becoming much stronger and more powerful than nearly anyone in 1968 would have imagined. That wasn’t what liberals of 1968 or the radicals who took to the streets forty years ago had in mind.

Tariq Ali, who was on the London barricades, recently reflected that the hopes of revolutionaries, liberals and social democrats have all been cruelly dashed by the triumph of the “Washington consensus”, combining economic deregulation and the entry of private capital into the areas of public provision. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s revolution is now the conventional wisdom, shared by the main parties and the establishment and consolidated by her successors. As her brilliant (Liberal Democrat) biographer John Campbell concluded a few years ago, Britain today is Thatcher’s theme park.

So is there any reason to revere 1968? Tariq Ali points to sexual liberation as a major legacy of the sixties generation. I agree that feminism is one of the most important things we have from that time. Feminist historians might tell us, however, that the women’s liberation movement was born at least in part from a reaction to the sexist attitudes and approaches of many New Left leaders. This is relevant to the states, where it took off rather more quickly than in Britain or elsewhere. I am quite sure there weren’t too many feminist slogans in the 1968 demonstrations.

Magnus Linklater argues that the exact aims of the demonstrations were hard to pin down. He may be nearer the mark than his contemporaries when he identifies a challenge to authoritarianism and totalitarianism as the unifying, lasting theme from those times. The interesting point is, from whom and at what this has been channelled over the last forty years?

The American liberal writer Paul Berman has shown how some ‘68ers later became important political figures. Adam Michnik was arrested in a demonstration in Warsaw in February of 1968 and went on to become the leading theorist of the Solidarity protest movement of the 1980s. Václav Havel was in New York in the spring of 1968, took part in the student strike at Columbia and joined Alexander Dubcek in the short-lived liberal uprising in Prague that summer.

It didn’t stop there. After 1989, Michnik became a supporter of Poland’s first non-communist government, editor-in-chief of the leading daily newspaper and has been dubbed “the Sisyphus of democracy.” Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic. He is a hero of many liberals, including Nick Clegg.

Still, it is very hard to draw a straight line from the 1968 demonstrations to the post-communist politics of the former eastern bloc and Paul Berman has not tried to do so.

Berman has written of another stand against authoritarianism: by the prominent German 1968 barricadier Joschka Fischer, who became a Green Party politician and foreign minister and became a leader of Europe’s fight against Serbian ultra-nationalism. Conservative and social democrat presidents and prime ministers from older generations didn’t want to know. But this came some time after Fischer had an epiphany. Some of his so-called revolutionary comrades from 1968 and after turned out to hold anti-semitic views. When it came to the crunch, the comrades seemed to be imitating the Nazis whom they were meant to revile. Fischer concluded that it was fascism in all it forms, including the fascism of the “New Left”, that had to be stopped.

There are, however, other anti-authoritarians from 1968: France’s nouveaux philosophes. One is Andre Glucksmann, who led the Sorbonne demonstrations and later arguedthat the old Soviet bloc represented the worst sort of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Glucksmann’s anti-totalitarianism has led him to back Chechnyan independence -- and the Iraq war (like Berman, but unlike Fischer). He supported Nicolas Sarkozy, a scourge of the 68 generation, in last year’s presidential elections.

Another is Bernard Henri Levy, who became a strong critic of socialist and communist responses to 1968, as well as of the Soviet Union. He called for intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s and now campaigns against Islamic totalitarianism.

The nouveaux philosophes may not be neo-conservatives in the American mould because they have not embraced capitalist ideologies in the same way. Some UK liberals may agree with them on some issues but not on others. My point is that their views underline how strained are the connections between the evenements of 1968 and the politics of today.

I can’t accept the conservative sneer that 1968 was about little more than youthful indulgence. But that one year wasn’t the start of a revolution either. While it may not be worth all the fuss, that year unleashed some baby boomers as important political forces. It’s just that the forces ended up looking and acting very differently from where they were in 1968. And, lest we forget, like characters in a play by Chekhov, the boomers’ time is passing.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

McCain vs. McCain - a quick update

I have previously blogged that one of Senator John McCain’s big challenges is to decide which story he is going to tell about himself – the maverick or the true conservative. I argued that he couldn’t win by telling both and that he would try to, in effect, fuse the two stories, running as a straight-talking problem solver, better qualified and stronger on national security than Senator Barack Obama.

So far, McCain is hardly trying to shut down the maverick story. Also, he is telling a personal tale of honour and national service, to show that he is an American warrior who can be trusted on national security.

It’s working rather well. The latest New York Times / CBS poll says that 81 per cent of Americans – yes, four out of five, think the country is on the wrong track. Yet McCain, the candidate of a Republican Party badly tarnished by the Bush presidency, leads Barack Obama by one point and Hillary Clinton by three points.

One explanation is that nobody is showing up the basic conflict between McCain’s stories.

The Economist’s Lexington columnist contends that the Democrats’ “demolition derby”, Obama vs. Clinton, is ruining their chances of victory in November. S/he says:

“. . . rather than defining Mr McCain the Democrats are letting Mr McCain define himself.

"This might not matter so much if the senator from Arizona were a mere Bush clone. But he is more than that—a spunky maverick who has frequently broken with the Republican machine and earned admiration from moderates and independents. He is also using his time wisely. He has tried to look presidential by touring the Middle East and Europe (not without mishap, as when he managed to confuse Sunni and Shia extremists in Iraq). And he has tried to distance himself from George Bush's foreign policy by stressing the importance of global co-operation, calling for a reduction in stockpiles of nuclear weapons and pledging that he will do more to deal with global warming and malaria.”

And let’s not forget the crucial role of media narrative. Paul Krugman has previously written about Clinton rules, under which large sections of the media attribute sinister motives to just about anything the Clintons say or do. Now he talks about McCain rules:

". . . under which anything John McCain says, no matter how craven or dishonest, becomes proof of his straight-talking maverickness (mavericity?).”

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Seeing what we want to see

I’m still bemused by the number of people who wonder why narratives are so important in politics.

I’m even more bemused by the number who try to dazzle the rest of us with their knowledge of this clever new concept, as if they were a modern day Moses.

The truth is, everyone uses narratives – that is, everyone tells and hears stories – every single day. That’s because we need them, all the time.

Let’s start by going global. Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times provides an interesting explanation for the growing tension between the United States and China in the wake of the Tibet upheavals.

“China and the U.S. clash partly because of competing interests, but mostly because of competing narratives. To Americans, Tibet fits neatly into a framework of human rights and colonialism. To Chinese, steeped in education of 150 years of “guochi,” or national humiliations by foreigners, the current episode is one more effort by imperialistic and condescending foreigners to tear China apart or hold it back.”

It sounds worryingly like the national “narrative” that Japan developed in the 1930s. My point (for now) is that, just as politicians have party narratives, leaders and countries have national narratives.

What Kristof says is insightful but maybe it should come as no surprise. From an early age, we use narratives – stories – to make sense of what is going on around and to us, to provide some clues as to what happens next and, sometimes, to help us justify our actions and to feel better about ourselves.

In The Story Factor (2006), Annette Simmonds, wrote that:

“A good story simplifies our world into something we feel like we can understand . . . .”


“. . . makes sense of chaos and gives [people] a plot.”

This goes back to the Bible - actually, to the drawings that cave people drew on walls.

Now, come closer to home. In the latest New Statesman, Brian Cathcart brilliantly deconstructs how the media explained the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal Five.

“It was a story rich in meaning, perhaps even a metaphor. This is where we saw the real wallowing, where the full gamut of emotions was run, from A to Z. And, of course, the meanings and metaphors you detected depended very much on the angle from which you were viewing things.

“The Express wondered: "Can we not do anything well any longer?" And the Mail was on the same track: "This is the nation, after all, that once built mighty rail networks not only at home, but across India, Africa and South America . . . Today? With the admirable exception of St Pancras International, the picture is everywhere one of incompetence." Oh woe.

“The Independent and the Guardian believed this should mark the end of any argument for a third runway at Heathrow, and so, less predictably, did the Sunday Times, which promised to "keep up the pressure" for its wacky solution to London's air problem - a whopping great new airport on an artificial island in the Thames estuary . . ."

Then, the search for a scapegoat, the villain of the story.

“The Mail had a tilt at BAA's "predatory, cash-strapped foreign owners", Ferrovial of Spain, while the Times was furious with the monopolists of both airline and airport company for their "cavalier approach to the customer". Will Hutton in the Observer had a more subtle beef, complaining that T5's woes were "symptomatic of deeper weaknesses in our private sector" and warning that "we need to recast the way we do business".

“Most bracing of all, though, were the conclusions of the true conservatives of our time. Peter Hitchens wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the fiasco was the inevitable consequence of the introduction of comprehensive education in around 1968, while Simon Heffer in the Telegraph put it all down to a British workforce which is "poorly educated, poorly managed, is almost impossible to sack when it fouls up, has its failures rewarded and has a lavish welfare state to fall back on".

"Something for everybody, then . . . “

Yes, something for everyone. The story has a beginning, a middle and end with characters, especially villains and of course, a moral to the tale.

Every hour, every day, commentators and the media are helping us to process news into familiar storylines.

The rot has set in. This is country is right and another is wrong. Here’s the hero. There’s the victim. Let’s gang up on the villain. Who has got something they didn’t deserve, so we can resent them. Hey, look, someone’s up on a pedestal – oops, no, we’ve taken them down. To name a few.

The stories work because they are about how people really think.

Political narratives are effective when they tie into or build on these types of stories, providing ready explanations and straightforward solutions.

In promising “we shall never surrender. . . we will fight them on the beaches” in 1940, Winston Churchill harked back to the Spanish Armada and the myth of the “strong island nation”. So did Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. She also promised to stop the rot – the miners, weak colleagues, scroungers and others.

Historically, the Conservatives have been better at storytelling. But since the mid 1990s Labour has told the stories of aspiration, opportunity and security. Those storylines are getting away from them now.

Liberal Democrats haven’t been so adept at tapping into these storylines or at finding our own storylines and sticking to them. When we do, the results are quite striking. For a third party, “the rot” is one or both of the other parties. Remember the Liberal Party’s showing in February 1974, the SDP-Liberal Alliance result in 1983, the Lib Dems’ breakthrough of 1997 and consolidation in 2001. Vince Cable’s quip that Gordon Brown had undergone a transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean was one of the best soundbites of 2007. This picked up an existing story and built on it, adding metaphor and humour in the process.

The key is not to list policies or values but to offer people a new version of their story as a tool for understanding the world and then to show what happens next: a happy ending.